My father is no longer a nameless casualty of the Cold War.
Nov. 11 will be the first Veterans Day since the death of Roy Louis Bergeron that our family can prove he died a patriot 53 years ago. It’s no longer just “a family story.” We don’t have the top-secret records — those were burned within months of his death — but we now have Uncle Sam’s acknowledgment.
That comes from the U.S. Department of Justice through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, called RECA and administered by DOJ. Although I began filling out the paperwork and using Freedom of Information requests for records three years ago, this has been a five-decade, family-led mission to prove how and why he died.
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Veterans Day will again be filled with heart-wrenching and heart-warming remembrances of those who have served through battlefield wars and, like my father, more silent forms of war.
As parades roll and the air fills with patriotic music, I silently salute my Dad and the tens of thousands of other men and women who have donned military uniforms. Whether the reasons were selfless or for circumstance, all of you have kept this country strong.
Those of us of a certain age know that the Cold War was a 45-year period that followed World War II, pitting the superpowers of the United States and the Western Bloc against the Soviet Union and its satellite states of the Eastern Block. A proliferation of atomic weapons was the result, and my father, as a Navy special weapons officer, was in the thick of things.
‘Duck and cover’
If we were young enough to be in school in the 1950s and early 1960s, we participated in “duck and cover” drills. Everyone looked with awe at the mushroom-cloud tests shown on TV or news reels. On the Mississippi Coast, we were alarmed by the parade of military vehicles headed down U.S. 90 to Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That was in October 1962. A year later, both my Dad and President John F. Kennedy were dead.
Research uncovers personal stuff
The search for Roy Bergeron’s real military story has helped me to know him better as a person, more than the facts that this poor Cajun from Louisiana enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and was already stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. He died in the prime of life at age 43, medically retired as a lieutenant commander.
I was 10, relishing life as a military brat at the Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan, when my carefree youthfulness was swept away by his diagnosis. The doctors told Mom that his cancer was caused by his exposure to radiation, and that was a shocker because Dad never talked about top secret stuff. Because of their classified work, Cold War casualties were often not acknowledged as such.
I was 13 when we buried him at the Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, his choice for a site because that is where he met my Mom, Cotton, then a World War II Navy Wave.
Dad’s lingering death came on a silent battlefield with no guns fired. He was seven inches shorter because that is what multiple myloma does to spines and bones. This cancer causes plasma cells to attack healthy bone marrow.
One of the hardest parts of my research was reading the medical records, hoping I’d find a statement that connected the cancer to his working at atomic test sites. I found none. Sometimes I could barely read the reports through the tears, imaging what Dad went through with physical pain untempered by the realization he wouldn’t watch his four children grow up.
Proof and only the proof
I plowed through more than 700 documents from the National Personnel Records Center, the Department of the Navy and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Among the papers were lists of his duty stations, leave requests, special training schools in New Mexico and Nevada, what World War II ships he served on, commendations for improvements on weapons systems and scads of officer fitness reports, once he changed from enlisted to officer status. Comments from his commanding officers paint my father as extremely intelligent and respected.
Such records tell a fascinating story, but they are not what I needed to submit to DOJ for the RECA application. Any records the family once had disappeared and Mom died in 1998.
Our mother was forced to begin the Battle of Proof within a year of Dad’s 1963 death so that we could get survivors’ benefits and War Orphans educational assistance. She even had to prove that the youngest of us was Dad’s child.
Resuming Mom’s hunt
Mom had to claw up such brick walls because the military immediately burned his classified records after his death. I know this because I found the burn document in his Navy file. Mom was right about his most important records disappearing.
In late 2013, I picked up Mom’s fallen mantle after we heard about the RECA program and realized that might be a way to acknowledge our Dad’s role in the Cold War. The monetary compensation part would be nice, but frankly too late to help our mother.
With no documents of our own, only unproven family stories, I called on 3½ decades of reporting and history research skills. My older sister’s vivid memory of Dad’s description of experiencing an atomic test was submitted but DOJ said it was no proof. I needed written records.
After months of filling out forms and making phone calls, copies of old documents finally began to arrive. Our family especially owes the staff of Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus a thanks for going the extra mile, combing through more files after we received our first DOJ rejection.
Threading as a research tool
Still, no proof positive surfaced so I next turned to looking for threads that could be pulled to other files in other places. I tried to match his travel dates with atomic test dates, and his special training courses to the atomic centers. I sent each research thread to my DOJ contacts, and DOJ turned them over to other researchers for more digging.
Which of those threads bingoed I do not know. DOJ said it cannot tell me. I suspect it might be a letter I located from the judge advocate general who ruled Dad’s illness as 100 percent service connected. I sent it to DOJ with the comment that my Dad’s records were burned, but did the JAG records still exist as a back door?
DOJ finally ruled in our favor this spring but that doesn’t mean my search is over. I want to know more about this secret work and what document led to the DOJ decision.
Life goes on
On Veterans Day, I can’t get maudlin, for my father wouldn’t have wanted that. He was brave through all that physical pain and continued to find reasons to make us laugh, to keep our young minds piqued with curiosity about the world around us.
It is obvious, at least now if not when I was so young, that Dad didn’t want his death to rule our lives. Instead he willed us to Live!
The truth is, this patriot would have sacrificed his life all over again for his country. He told our mother as much.
His was the prevalent attitude of the Cold War secret soldiers. Many more of their stories remain untold.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes Coast Chronicles as a freelance correspondent. You can reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.